And then Clarence Darrow had to defend himself

June 20, 1993|By Ron Grossman | Ron Grossman,Chicago Tribune

THE PEOPLE VS.

CLARENCE DARROW.

Geoffrey Cowan.

Times Books.

544 pages. $27.50. This book is a bitter pill for anyone who dreamed of going to law school to become another Clarence Darrow -- and, save for William F. Buckley and Rush Limbaugh, who of us over 40 didn't?

As with most medicine, however, we'll be better off for it. Heroes are even more compelling with a bit of clay on their feet, and in "The People vs. Clarence Darrow," Geoffrey Cowan demonstrates that the great crusading lawyer didn't always play by the rules.

In mid-career, Darrow himself was put on trial, charged with bribing two jurors when he represented labor leader J. J. McNamara and his brother James in 1911. The McNamara brothers had been accused of bombing the building of the Los Angeles Times, then a fiercely anti-labor paper.

Having defended such left luminaries as Eugene Victor Debs and Big Bill Haywood, Darrow was the natural choice to sit at the defense table next to the McNamara brothers, whose case was taken up as a crusade by organized labor. So many of Darrow's old friends were bitterly disappointed when, on the eve of trial, he pleaded the McNamaras guilty. When Darrow himself was indicted for jury tampering, a lot of labor leaders and radicals said good riddance to bad rubbish.

Afterward, many were reconciled with Darrow, who went on to the famed Scopes "monkey trial" and to save Loeb and Leopold from the gallows. In the public's memory, it was assumed Darrow was innocent, having been set up by a prosecution out to get him for his long service to underdogs and unpopular causes, an idea furthered by I. F. Stone's best-selling biography "Clarence Darrow for the Defense."

But Mr. Cowan, a UCLA law professor, argues persuasively that Darrow had, indeed, tried to fix the McNamara jury, showing that the bribe money had to have passed through Darrow's hands.

Darrow's trial (memo to Hollywood) was the stuff of which movie scripts are made. His wife and mistress sat side by side during the proceedings. The latter, Mary Field, was a radical journalist and Darrow's ideological soul mate. His prim-and-proper wife, Ruby, always pressured Darrow to drop the lost causes and practice more corporate law.

In fact, Darrow had so many blue-chip clients that half the Republican establishment of Chicago, his home base, submitted character-witness depositions for him, even as his radical friends deserted him during the trial.

Darrow and Earl Rogers, his defense attorney, were a courtroom odd couple. Rogers, the most flamboyant criminal attorney of the day, didn't give a fig for a client's politics as long as he could pay his fee. A brilliant courtroom performer by day, Rogers spent his evenings in bars and brothels.

Halfway through trial, booze effectively put Rogers out of action, forcing Darrow to take over his own defense. That probably saved Darrow, who got to deliver one of his famed heart-rending perorations, this time on his own behalf.

"If in your judgment," he told the jury, "and your wisdom and your humanity, you believe me innocent and return a verdict of not guilty in this case, I know that from thousands and tens of thousands and yea, perhaps millions of the weak and the poor and the helpless throughout the world, will come thanks to this jury for saving my liberty and my name."

When Darrow finished, even the court stenographer was in tears. It took the jury less than 40 minutes to return a verdict of not guilty.

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